The examined life

Mabel asks:

Evaluate the moral implication of Aristotle’s popular saying that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Answer by Craig Skinner

The remark about the unexamined life is made by Socrates at his trial. He has already been found guilty (of corrupting the young and holding the city’s gods in contempt), the prosecutor has suggested the death sentence, and Socrates addresses the jury. They expect him to ask for leniency, grovel a bit, promise to stop haranguing young men in the town square about the nature of virtue, exposing their ignorance and trying to get them to think clearly. But Socrates doesn’t play ball. Instead he says:

“I say that this is the greatest good for a human being — to have discussions every day about virtue and the the other things about which you hear me conversing and examining myself and others; and that the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” (Apology, 38a 1-6)

He is sentenced to death and accepts it without question, refusing offer of escape from prison by his friend Crito.

“Not worth living” is strong stuff. Not just a bad way to live but worse than not living at all. Socrates clearly believed it. Few others do. Plato, for instance, in his ideal city in the Republic, has three classes, philosophers, soldiers, workers. Only the first live an examined life whilst the others have unreflective lives, yet lives worth living. And most of us would surely agree that a life comprising useful work, family and leisure interests can be worthwhile.

However Plato does think that the examined life of the philosophers is the best life. And we can understand Socrates as holding the same less extreme view if we translate the greek “biotõs” as “to be lived” rather than “worth living” so that the saying becomes “the unexamined life is not to be lived”.  In short, no human should live an unexamined life.

Now we have something many of us would agree with. Aristotle certainly would (although I’m not aware that he went around quoting Socrates as your question rather suggests). He says:

“Human beings began to do philosophy, even as we do now, because of wonder, at first because they wondered about the strange things right in front of them, and later, advancing little by little, because they came to find greater things puzzling” (Metaphysics, 982b12).

He argues in Nicomachean Ethics that the philosophical life is the pinnacle for humans, using reason in virtuous activity.

And I’m sure you agree with me that a full human life includes wonder about things and a sustained attempt to understand:  why there’s a universe rather than nothing, how it works, how did we come to be, how should we live, how will it end, what can we know, what does it all mean? Otherwise you and I wouldn’t be engaged in this dialogue.

So one implication of the saying is that all of us should philosophise in the broad sense at least some of the time.

You ask about the moral implications. Of course, saying how we should live because it is best for us, is already a moral judgment. But does it make me a better person? In the Apology Socrates assumes rather than argues for it. Elsewhere (Euthyphro, Crito, Charmides, Gorgias for instance) he argues that all virtue is related to the endless search for understanding, and those failing to do this fall into to all kinds of vice. However, lest we get carried away thinking philosophy is the royal road to virtue, reflect on Kant’s view that moral agents need no help from philosophy, they know where duty lies (but don’t always do it), and perfecting the soul needs a pure heart not a trained mind.

One thought on “The examined life

  1. ” Socrates argues that all virtue is related to the endless search for understanding, and those failing to do this fall into to all kinds of vice.

    I think it is true and perhaps people who try to do good and save the world without this search will be doing harm to the world and to themselves and they will be making all sort of new ideologies and religions (spiritual paths).

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